I had the pleasure recently of visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia. I’m a bit of a history nerd and I’d read a biography on Washington late last year, so believe me when I tell you this was a huge thrill for me.
I’ve learned so much about Washington from the various biographies I’d read about him and the other Founding Fathers, as well as a couple of Revolutionary War books. So much of what I’d known about him had to do with his leadership — he was a tremendous leader who knew how to motivate people and surrounded himself with some very smart and talented individuals.
Other than the time spent touring the grounds of Mount Vernon, the various out-buildings and, of course, the mansion itself, one of the things that was most fascinating to me was about a mile and a half down the road from the main grounds at George Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery.
It was not uncommon for a large, working plantation such as Mount Vernon to have a gristmill to process wheat, corn, and barley. A canal was dug so that water flowed downstream to operate the mill.
About the time Washington was retiring from his second term as President, he hired a new farm manager to oversee operations at Mount Vernon. John Anderson, from Scotland, also had experience distilling grain in both Scotland and Virginia.
Almost immediately, he recognized a new opportunity for Washington. Mount Vernon, at the time, was growing rye, corn, and barley. Anderson knew all those grains, combined with the large working gristmill and abundant supply of water, would make operating a distillery a profitable venture.
The only problem was, he’d have to convince the General.
Washington really wasn’t much of a whiskey drinker — he preferred sweet, fortified wines such as Madeira and Port, as well as a good porter (I’ve been told he was a bit of a beer snob). So, getting buy-in on a distillery was not so easy for Anderson.
The proof, of course, was in the profits. At first, Anderson used a portion of the nearby cooperage building for his distilling operations, and as the profits began to roll in and Washington saw the potential, that space proved to be too limited in size.
Construction began in October of 1797 of a stone still house large enough for five stills. The foundation was large river rocks brought from the Falls of the Potomac and the walls of the distillery were made of sandstone quarried from Mount Vernon.
At peak production, the distillery used five stills and a boiler and produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, yielding Washington a profit of $7,500 in 1799. This made the distillery one of the most successful economic components of Mount Vernon.
Here is what impressed me the most. As I said, I’ve learned a great deal about Washington’s leadership abilities — as both a General and President — but Washington was also an entrepreneur.
He didn’t know anything about distilling whiskey — heck, he didn’t even drink whiskey that often — but he listened to the smart people he hired and let them do what he hired them to do: make money. He gave Anderson the leeway to use his creativity to go above and beyond simply managing the farm.
Washington listened to his proposal for a distillery, let Anderson show him it could be profitable, and then gave him the go-ahead to move forward with his plan once it was proven.
In the end, it became the largest distillery in Virginia and a hugely profitable venture.
How often do your employees bring you new ideas?
Do you allow them the freedom to think creatively? Do you nurture their growth and celebrate their initiative?
It’s been said the best leaders hire people who are smarter than they are … while that may be true, it doesn’t matter how smart they are if you don’t listen to them. Your next big opportunity could be in the mind of one of your loyal employees — it’s up to you to unlock that idea and embrace them as a valuable member of the team.